July 26, 2013 7:04 pm

How Salcombe became one of the UK’s most expensive real estate areas

Affluent second-home buyers from London help to push up prices in the Devon harbour town
Salcombe in Devon©Alamy

Salcombe in Devon has one of the highest densities of £2m-plus homes in the UK

Salcombe likes to call itself southwest England’s sunshine capital but now it boasts a punchier – if more controversial – accolade as one of the country’s most expensive real estate areas.

Over the past 25 years this tiny port has become increasingly popular as affluent Britons seek second homes by the sea. Analysis by estate agency Savills shows that, as of April this year, 42 per cent of Salcombe’s homes are classed as holiday properties.

Such affection from the wealthy may appear unlikely on paper, as Salcombe is 240 miles southwest of London, lacks a railway station, has slow approach roads and wholly inadequate parking. But a saunter through the town reveals the reasons for its popularity and its stellar house prices.

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First, its location is extraordinarily beautiful, with sandy beaches and a sheltered harbour offering good sailing, all on a coastal strip of south Devon called the South Hams that is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Second, many of its houses – built into hills rising from a handful of sea-level streets – have views of the Kingsbridge estuary. Third, no matter how big the demand to live in Salcombe, there is almost no room for expansion thanks to planning restrictions and those hills.

“It has a village feel because it’s very small and the concentration on sailing, beaches and coastal walks means the place has become a playground, in a good way,” says Jane Summers of Marchand Petit, the estate agency that dominates the town’s high-end market.

A survey in 2012 by website Prime-Location, revealing the 10 UK locations outside London with the highest density of £2m-plus homes, included nine from southeast England’s commuter belt: the only other, in ninth place and in vivid contrast, was Salcombe. Estate agency Knight Frank says prices in Salcombe have dropped 20 per cent since 2007. But most agents in the town itself blame this on a fall in demand from local buyers unable to “trade up”. The wealthy second-home market, by contrast, is regarded as more robust.

“Someone who wants Salcombe generally has only that location on their list,” says Christy Bartlett of Stacks Property Search. She says this year has seen more £1m-plus local homes going to second-home purchasers although stamp duty rises have curtailed demand in the £2m-plus market.

Devon property prices

Most buyers are from London, typically from the media or financial services, and often preparing for retirement. As a result, Salcombe now reflects their tastes rather than those found in much of southwest England. The town’s main street, for example, is dominated by high-end clothing shops, delicatessens and chandleries, and the must-see event this summer is not a local fete but an exhibition of work by the artist Damien Hirst.

House prices are similarly out of kilter. In the 12 months to March this year, the average Salcombe home sold for £481,597, according to Zoopla; in the South Hams as a whole the average was £295,651; in Plymouth, 25 miles away, the average was £157,608.

Salcombe’s prices have this year been bolstered by a growing property trend in the town: hotels converting their buildings into apartments. “As hotels and guest houses have become obsolete and uneconomic they’ve been redeveloped. The vast majority have been used as holiday homes that would otherwise have been absorbed by traditional housing,” says Harriet Cundy of Marchand Petit.

The prime example is Estura. This high-specification scheme of villas and apartments in the grounds of a newly-renovated hotel is Salcombe’s first waterfront new-build scheme for a quarter of a century. More than 50 per cent of the units have sold off-plan and the remainder are on sale from £1.5m to £4.15m through Marchand Petit and Savills.

Gara Rock where holiday homes are priced from £520,000

Gara Rock where holiday homes are priced from £520,000

Across the estuary from Salcombe sits Gara Rock, a revamped cliff-top boutique hotel and restaurant with contemporary two- and three-bedroom cottages and apartments for use as holiday homes only. They have private patios, access to a communal pool, and overlook Prawle Point, a popular beach and sailing spot. The properties are priced from £520,000 to £685,000 through Marchand Petit.

Christopher Bailey, head of waterfront properties at Knight Frank, says such conversions work because they create new homes that are regarded as “more attractive than older properties to buyers, particularly higher up the market” and are “perfect lock-up-and-leave” – estate agent jargon for units designed to be left empty but secure for part of the year.

The same descriptions also apply to a growing number of custom-built homes in Salcombe and nearby East Portlemouth and Hope Cove. “Those with multimillion-pound budgets will often buy a dated property on a generous plot, knock it down and build a high-specification home,” says Rob Govier of estate agency Fulfords.

The holy grail of Salcombe property is direct, private access to the water, although very few homes enjoy this perk. One is The Moult, an 18th-century house in four acres of land close to Salcombe and with a private path to the beach. It is on sale through Savills for £5m.

Devon map

Despite its status, Salcombe attracts few foreign buyers. Perhaps this is due to its inaccessibility – the town is an 80-minute drive from the nearest international airport at Exeter – or the fact that the west country’s seaside and climate are less appealing to the global jet-set than to Britons.

Even without international demand, Salcombe’s housing market remains as expensive as parts of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, and its most modern homes offer design and build quality equal to that in many world holiday resorts. Which means the only area where Salcombe falls short – whatever the locals claim – is in its hours of sunshine.

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Buying guide

● Salcombe is very quiet in winter when some shops remain closed

● The 2,000 permanent population swells to 22,000 in summer months

● Homes in nearby towns like Kingswear and Totnes may be 40 per cent cheaper

● Salcombe’s monthly reported crime totals since July 2012 range from eight incidents to 34

● Crimes peak in summer, when antisocial behaviour accounts for one-third of offences

What you can buy for . . . 

£500,000: A three-bedroom semi-detached house inland, possibly requiring some updating

£1m: An apartment in a converted hotel with excellent sea views

£5m: A large period house with grounds and water frontage

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